When it comes to Dead Space, what dies doesn't stay dead for long. Dead Space 3 launched in February 2013 and EA has said nothing since to indicate it's ready to revive the science fiction horror series. We've already explored the Dead Space 3 the developers wanted to make, but what about Dead Space 4? It turns out Visceral had ideas - some properly exciting - for a fourth game in the series. Unfortunately, Visceral never got the chance to turn them into reality. After Dead Space 3 flopped, EA put the studio on the Battlefield series with spin-off Hardline before assigning it a Star Wars game that was eventually cancelled. Now, Visceral is no more.
Visceral is dead, but those early ideas for Dead Space 4 live on in the mind of Ben Wanat, who was creative director of Dead Space and is now creative director at Crystal Dynamics. We spoke with Wanat to find out more.
By the end of Dead Space 3, humanity is facing its doom. It's in this hopeless situation that Dead Space 4 was to be set. The idea came from the flotilla section in Dead Space 3, and had the player scavenge supplies in order to survive. "The notion was you were trying to survive day to day against infested ships, searching for a glimmer of life, scavenging supplies to keep your own little ship going, trying to find survivors," Wanat explained.
Alongside the rough plan for the story, there were some solid ideas about how exactly Dead Space 4 would raise the bar regarding gameplay. "We would have finessed a lot of existing mechanics," Wanat said. "The flotilla section in Dead Space 3 hinted at what non-linear gameplay could be, and I would have loved to go a lot deeper into that." This focus on scavenging abandoned ships would have also allowed for a more involved experience when fixing things, rather than sticking your arm into panels and moving wires around.
Visceral intended for Dead Space 4 to be a hybrid between a chapter format, and the non-linear style the team wanted to go for. "I figured you'd start in a section of space, maybe following a trail of ship carcasses to an orbital station you think might have the parts and fuel needed to get your ship Shock-capable," Wanat said. (In the Dead Space universe, the ShockPoint Drive was a means of interstellar travel invented by an astrophysicist named Hideki Ishimura.)
"You'd start to form a picture of what happened in that region while fighting through scores of Necromorphs from ship to ship. And you'd learn a new, critical bit of plot info along with the means to Shock to a couple of nearby sectors," Wanat continued. The further the player would get in the game, the broader their exploration options would be.
The ships you'd encounter was also a topic of interest for the team. Visceral did a fantastic job making the USG Ishimura a character in itself, and the team wanted to replicate this for the many space crafts you'd find. "The ships you would visit are where the game would get really diverse. The Ishimura had some inkling of that diversity with the variously themed decks. But imagine an entire roster of ship types, each with unique purposes, floor plans, and gameplay. Our original prototypes for the Dead Space 3 flotilla had some pretty wild setups that I wish we had been able to use."
In terms of guns, the game would've taken another look at the crafting system implemented in Dead Space 3, which in Wanat's opinion took away from the synergy that made the weapons special. "I think in our exuberance to really lean into Isaac's mechanic background, we managed to diminish that synergy with the Dead Space 3 crafting system," he said. "I love that it gave players creativity in putting together their weapons, but it became very difficult to tune when you allowed players to break the primary and alt-fire pairings. There would have needed to be a focus on re-perfecting the weapon balance while still giving players plenty to tinker with."
Not to mention the new Necromorphs the player would be using these weapons on; with Dead Space shifting from linear horror to a game which permits more exploration, the Necromorphs would have to be a greater threat in zero-g environments. "The problem with all of the ground-based enemies was that they couldn't follow you through zero-g and that made them much less threatening," Wanat said. "But make a zero-g enemy that can snake through zero-g corridors, propel itself in open space, and grapple with the player to tear off his mask and eat his face? Then I think you'd have yourself a good old time."
While having your face chewed on does indeed sound like a bunch of fun, whose face would've been eaten wasn't set in stone by any means. The story at the end of Dead Space 3 was left open, so that if the Dead Space franchise was returned to, it could have been in the shoes of Isaac, Carver, Ellie or an entirely new character. "With the apocalypse, there was the opportunity for a clean break," Wanat said. "It wouldn't be necessary for the story going forward to include any of them." He also said he'd have loved to do a game with Ellie at the helm and had always "imagined her as the protagonist of Dead Space 4".
These concepts weren't widespread outside of Visceral's small story team, which had come up with the aforementioned ideas during their work on Dead Space 3: "After the third game, some folks stayed on to finish up the DLC, but the rest needed to move on to help other projects," Wanat said. "At this point, it was pretty clear that Dead Space 3 was going to be the last instalment."
Despite critical acclaim and a passionate fanbase, Dead Space simply wasn't bringing in enough money to be viable, according to Wanat. "As much as everyone wanted to keep making Dead Space games, the cost of development was just too high compared to how much they sold. Nobody ever officially came out and said, 'there will be no more Dead Space'. But for the first time in a while, it no longer appeared on any SKU plans."
Visceral, like much of EA, was at the time converting over to the Frostbite game engine, so it made more business sense to have the studio help put out Battlefield games, which historically had had far better returns. Although Dead Space didn't bring in enough money, Wanat believes it could be profitable given a smaller budget: "It would involve getting the development cost pushed way down," he said. "And I think you'd have to focus much more on a fantastic core experience: dread, horror, and great dismemberment combat - you'd also have to forego some of the ridiculously expensive one-off action moments."
Visceral had a plan for how Dead Space 4 would end, although Wanat didn't want to spoil it just in case EA decides to continue with the franchise. "I don't want to give away the lore, but I will say that we spent a bit of time working out the origin of the Necromorphs and what purpose humans held in this dark universe. Would players find a way out of the Necromorph apocalypse? I'd say yes, but they might be sorry they did. Sometimes you're better off with the devil you know..."
Wanat, like many Dead Space fans, still has hope it may one day return. He believes if a new instalment is given the green light, the developers would have a lot to work with. "I think the Dead Space universe is a solid piece of original IP. It's a big enough space for sequels, new stories and new ideas.
"You never know. Someone might look back at the old EA catalogue one day and say, 'Whatever happened to Dead Space? Maybe we should bring that back'."